A Reluctant Muse
The muse of literary inspiration shows a clear preference for visiting those who take up “science” rather than “engineering” as their chosen topic. Popular books about engineering are a rare breed. Any stroll through a Barnes & Noble bears this out. The “science” table groans under piles of newly published titles, while the “engineering” table … doesn’t exist. An Amazon search for “popular science” books generates, at last glance, over 127,000 titles; “popular engineering” about 6,500. And, in my favorite indicator of cultural trends and preferences, Google’s Ngram viewer shows “science” references appearing in books at a level four times higher than “engineering.”
Stories Capture Hearts and Minds
For all the understandable reasons at work here, it’s no less an occasion to reflect on how well we’re doing at telling the story of engineering. Books might be one of the greatest outreach technologies available; they offer sustained, personal, intense encounters with a subject in all its richness, fully customizable for each individual reader. Could the relative scarcity of engaging books about engineering be handicapping the other outreach efforts we’re all trying to carry out, at so much cost and effort?
Some Books about Engineering
Herewith, then, a highly selective reading list of books to deploy as vehicles of engineering outreach, appropriate down the line for readers certainly from high school on up, and in many cases, probably middle school, too. Four categories of writers populate this list: generalists, historians, memoirists, and technical writers. As on many lists to do with engineering, it’s predominantly pale and male. Additions to the diversity of this list are warmly welcome.
Probably most famous and prolific among engineering writers is Henry Petroski. He writes about engineering from the most panoramic of perspectives – his subjects have ranged from the paper clip and pencil to bridges and skyscrapers. His big idea about engineering is that failure is a better teacher than success. As a general life principle, let alone element of the engineering design process, this idea is the nutshell lesson encasing nearly all the engineering phenomena he discusses in his books. See To Engineer Is Human, The Evolution of Useful Things, and Success through Failure, among many others.
Donald Norman and Samuel Florman flank Petroski in the generalist formation. He of The Design of Everyday Things, Norman homes in our actual, usually flawed, experiences with the designed objects that fill the landscape of daily life. Finding much to lament, Norman anatomizes the widespread failures of design and elucidates what should be obvious principles for making it actually serve our needs under the idea of “user-centered design.”
Taking an expansive, philosophical tack, Florman examines engineering within a broad historical, cultural context. Writing of people and things both ancient and modern, technical and artistic, Florman works to frame engineering as a fundamental human enterprise, an effort to make the world work better for our needs and desires. In The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, he explores the rewards and challenges of engineering for its practitioners and illuminates the role that engineering plays in our individual and shared lives.
According to the bent of any reader on your gift list, there is something for everyone in at least one of these writer’s books.
Accounts of historical engineering feats make for gripping reads. They serve up the full menu of narrative conflict – among humans, against nature, against physics, against probability. The best of them bring characters to life, as these characters bring engineering visions to life. See, for example:
- The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough
- Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission, by Marc Kaufman
- The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift
- Engineering in the Ancient World, by J. G. Landels
- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner
- The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder
For the intellectually daring, recent MacArthur Foundation grantee Pamela Long writes with multidisciplinary ambition and insight about medieval technologies. Her reading of technology as both function and result of interrelated areas of intellectual, economic, and political activities is a challenging, highly academic reformulation of how engineering has worked in history.
Two examples of this underdeveloped genre (in engineering) follow a similar path: teen-age boy’s determination, fueled by dreams and against a backdrop of hardship, to build a machine that ends up bettering his lot in life and serves broader public goods.
- In Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam recounts his boyhood rocket-building projects in a West Virginia mining town that started him on a path to a National Science Fair gold medal and career at NASA. This book became the basis of the movie, October Sky.
- Further along the hardship spectrum, William Kamkwamba is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Using discarded motor parts, PVC pipe, and an old bike wheel, Kamkwamba assembled a windmill to bring electricity to his family’s farm in rural Malawi. His windmill becomes a scalable model for other resource-starved communities to generate power, and Kamkwamba becomes internationally recognized for his ingenuity and courage.
Interestingly, both Hickam and Kamkwamba were 14 years old when they embarked on their engineering odysseys. Make of that what you will, parents of teen-age boys.
On the other side of the literary street from historians and memoirists are the technical writers, telling stories not of why and how particular things happened but of why and how things happen in general. A towering figure here is David Macaulay (with the tall books to prove it). His richly illustrated, humorously told accounts of how things are built run from Pyramid to City to Castle to Mosque to Ship to Underground, all put to work in the cause of showing The Way Things Work. Of endless delight for anyone who can read 12-point font, Macaulay’s works are a sturdy foundation, if you will, for building an understanding of engineering. See also Stephen Biesty’s “cross-sections” series for similar books aimed at even younger readers.
Among the technicals, there is also a clutch of books that explain the “why” of things:
- Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail, Matthys Levys and Mario Salvadori
- Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, J. E. Gordon
- Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture, Mario Salvadori
- Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart, Mark Eberhart
Of recent note is Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. The Booklist review waxes grandly: “Miodownik accomplishes a bit of a miracle here by making a discussion of materials science not only accessible by witty as well.” From concrete to chocolate to paper to steel, Miodownik ranges widely and amusingly to make the common and mundane appear fascinating and unfamiliar.
What Did We Miss?
Books have unique powers to show us who we are and what we can be. These books do so, in part, through the lens of engineering and all the different ways people build the world to suit their needs. What books about engineering would you add? How have they shaped your life? Which of them would you pass on to the future engineers you know? We’ve published our little book, Dream, Invent, Create, to make engineering seem alive and possible for elementary school students. We’d love to hear about your experiences with engineering and books.